Composer Cliff Eidelman: From the planets to the stars

03. April 2011 - 22:37 Uhr

Film music composer Cliff Eidelman was just 26 years old when he was commissioned for "Star Trek VI – The Undiscovered Country". The soundtracks of the first five "Star Trek" movies had been written by Hollywood Grands such as Jerry Goldsmith and Leonard Rosenman. Part six was planned as a final highlight of the film series. Therefore, the soundtrack was meant to be something special.

At times they thought about using "The Planets" by Gustav Holst. Eidelman had studied this orchestral suite in college, he would have been able to adapt it. Instead, he convinced the director and the producers with his own music. The result was a soundtrack that is still regarded as one of the best "Star Trek" scores ever.

In an interview with musik heute, the composer recalls. (Für die deutsche Version hier klicken.)

First steps

Composer Cliff Eidelman

In his parents' house there was always music. "My mother would play anything at the piano we asked her," Cliff Eidelman recollects. His first records were a Beatles album, which he received at 4 or 5 years, and Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, the Pastorale. "Of this I could not get enough." At age 7 he began violin lessons and played violin duets with his sister. Later he formed a rock band, was a guitarist, songwriter and singer. "I played violin in the school orchestra and then after school, I would go to band practice. Music for me moved between two worlds," Eidelman says.

Over time, his compositions for the rock band became more complex and headed toward progressive rock, influenced by Yes, Pink Floyd and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. One day he heard Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, which he was "really blown away by", as he says. From around that time he began to immerse himself into classical composition listening to Beethoven, Prokofiev, Copland among many others and by studying their scores, he began learning to write music for orchestra. "I started to lose interest in the rock music, because with only four or five musicians I could not play all the music I heard in my head," he says.

His interest in film music started with "Star Wars". As the opening chords raised, he thought: "Wow, music in a film, that’s great!" That’s when he first heard all the "power of orchestral music in a film." A few years later Eidelman had classes at UCLA on the mechanics of film composition. "There you learn how to write music to time and for dramatic purposes, etc.. That was my first introduction to writing music for films," he explains.

His first self-composed orchestral work was a ballet. "I was able to do a certain amount of orchestration on the work from what I had learned on my own and from my previous experience studying a few orchestration books but I knew I needed to learn more deeply the art of orchestration, so I took private lessons with Steven Bernstein and learned how to orchestrate by using my ballet as material. It also helped to study Beethoven symphonies, Ravel’s 'Daphnis and Chloe'. Thus I got an idea of how to blend sounds and instruments together." For him that was the ideal way to learn orchestration: listening to a piece of music and looking how it was created. "The best thing of course is to develop your own way of composing. That is the goal," he says. His next work, an orchestral work in three movements, he then orchestrated it himself. At that time, Cliff Eidelman studied music at Santa Monica College. He then transfered to the University of Southern California, where he majored in composition. "But mostly I’ve learned by just doing it, learning by doing," he says.

"I was looking for a composer that’s going to give my movie a voice."
Nicholas Meyer, director

Star Trek

in front of "Star Trek VI" film poster

When Paramount was planning the sixth "Star Trek" film in 1991, the studio was looking for a composer who was standing at the beginning of his career. Because they did not have the money for one of the big names. "I think that opened the door to people like me to submit my music to the director " said Eidelman, who had already written half a dozen soundtracks at that time. One day he was invited to director Nicholas Meyer’s office. "We talked about the movie and Nick described the opening to me," Eidelman says. The film was meant to be more mysterious than the previous Star Trek movies. Therefore, Meyer wanted to get away from the marches and fanfares. Then he said, Stravinsky’s "Firebird" was very mysterious and dark. That’s how the film should begin: "in some kind of mysterious darkness."

With this description and a vision of story, Eidelman came up with the opening music. " Keep in mind, they didn’t even shoot the film yet, so this was all just ideas in the air," Eidelman says. Inspired by the meeting with the director, he composed the opening very quickly. "For all that Nick had said, seemed so clear and the script had a powerful statement. So I had a solid feeling for the tone of the film," the composer recalls.

The next day he called the director, telling him that he had the opening music. Meyer was leaving for Europe that night, so Eidelman immediately went to his office. "When he heard my music, a smile appeared on his face. He realized that I had understood him," says Eidelman. That moment he thought: 'I think I’m going to get the job. " Meyer gave him a script of the film and said, "Let us continue talking about it soon."

Eidelman went through the script and noted where in his opinion music should appear. He made almost a complete spotting session. "All this I’ve done based on the script, although the movie wasn’t filmed yet. This is really unusual," Eidelman says. He sent the script to Nicholas Meyer, who studied the music spotting notes, added his own and returned it to Eidelman. So it went a few times back and forth.

At the next appointment with Nicholas Meyer and the film’s editor Ron Roose, Eidelman thought he was going to be hired. Instead, the director suddenly said: "How about adapting "The Planets" by Gustav Holst?" Eidelman had studied the work in college. "It’s a great score and I would like to adapt it ," he said. However, by that Eidelman would become an arranger of "The Planets" rather than being composer of his own music.

After the meeting he asked the Film editor: "Ron, am I hired for the film?" Roose replied: "I was wondering the same thing." Soon he received the decisive call:" Cliff, you have the job" And he thought: "Wow, finally!"

Adaption of Holst?


So Eidelman looked at "The Planets" and wondered how he could adapt it. "But it seemed really wrong, the work was simply not the right tone." Nevertheless, he worked on it for a while. Eventually he went back to his own opening music. "I simply wrote the music, which I thought would work. So I started developing my own score separately."

One day the producers and the director wanted to hear the results of his work. Eidelman played a few scenes of his own music. All in the room began to smile and one of the producers asked in the discussion: "If we’ve already got this, why would we try to get "The Planets"? So they decided: Forget about "The Planets", let Cliff just write an original score. Only later Eidelman learned, that the licensing of "The Planets" would have been too expensive for the studio. "I was very happy about it. For a composer it is much more satisfying to write his own music, instead of the arranging the one of someone else."

"The thing about Star Trek VI that I find very important, was the music.
Music is (…) not just the score, not just notes, but a voice. And if it’s done correctly,
that’s exactly what it is: a new voice that comes into the film."

Ronald Roose (film editor)


What followed was a great deal of work: composing twelve hours a day. During the recordings of the soundtrack, Eidelman was able to use a big orchestra. He also used the Los Angeles Master Chorale for the singing at the beginning and for the Rura Penthe ice planet music. Previously he had been in the studio of one of the percussionists who had collected thousands of percussion instruments from all over the world. With pencil and paper, he went through the huge room and tapped on literally every instrument. Anything that sounded interesting, he wrote down and asked the percussionist for the range. "For the scenes on the ice planet, I put together all these strange instruments. During the recordings, half of the scoring stage was filled with it. It was fun!"

Cliff Eidelman was only 26 when he entered the "legendary" franchise of Star Trek. Didn’t he feel it as a heavy responsibility? "I should have," he says. "But somehow I felt free from any burden. Maybe because I was so excited about the project and worked so hard." He also felt a lot of support from director Nicholas Meyer and the entire team. For example at the recording of "All Clear Moorings", Leonard Nimoy was listening in the control room. "He smiled and said: 'This is really good'," Eidelman recalls and adds: "This was a great feeling: This man, who was at the very beginning of this series, told me that he liked my work. Probably this helped me not to feel the burden or nervousness."

Presence and future

with sheet music

"Star Trek VI" was Cliff Eidelman’s breakthrough in film music business. Until today, he has worked on more than 30 soundtracks. But he has also composed works for the concert hall and has even recorded an album of songs. "I have to move between genres," he says. "I love to work with stories and pictures because it really brings musical ideas out of me. But I also need to write concert music. I just finished a symphony in three movements. It is based on all types of movement, and water. This is a completely different art form, because the whole structure must be on itself. It is music for its own sake."

(By Wieland Aschinger)



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